Sean Baker, the creator of Fox’s Greg the Bunny, enjoyed breakout success (and Oscar buzz) with the 2015 film Tangerine. Telling the story of two transgender prostitutes, the movie was notably shot entirely on an iPhone 5. Once again, modern technology -- this time, Instagram -- is playing a pivotal role in the 46-year-old director’s latest film, The Florida Project, about 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and her tumultuous childhood, growing up right outside the happiest place on Earth, Walt Disney World.
Moonee and her young, out-of-work, single mom Halley (Instagram star Bria Vinaite) live week to week in the Magic Castle budget motel, run by the hardworking yet kindhearted Bobby (Willem Dafoe). It was Baker’s co-writer Chris Bergoch who brought the plight of Orlando’s hidden homeless population to Baker’s attention, and together they got to work on this film.
“I’ve always been inspired by The Little Rascals,” Baker says, referring to the comic shorts of the 1920s and 1930s (not the popular 1994 film adaptation). “I’ve been intrigued by the way they show the harsh realities of life -- in that case, the Great Depression -- but through the joyous viewpoint of children. And I thought, ‘I’m going to do this someday.’ I thought this would be my opportunity to make Little Rascals 2017.”
Baker found his own “little rascal” in Prince, in what turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the film. He and Bergoch initially had the idea for the film around the time of their first collaboration, Starlet, but struggled to get the project financed. “We were so upset, but in hindsight,” he recalls. “I realized if we’d made the film in 2011, [Brooklynn] wasn’t even born or she was a year old. Things happen for a reason, and Brooklynn is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met or worked with in my life.”
“She’s a firecracker. She’s smart, she can improvise, she’s a character. She’s a natural performer,” Dafoe says of his younger costar, who will surely earn breakout success.
The film’s other breakout is Vinaite, who balances Moonee’s story as Halley and was discovered by Baker after he saw the 24-year-old’s Instagram account. “I thought that if she can be that confident in front of the camera in six seconds, I know she will be able to do it [onscreen],” he says, praising Vinaite’s natural talent despite her lack of any formal acting experience.
“It still seems so surreal. Just to think that all this just started from a DM [direct message] is wild,” Vinaite says of the entire experience, while praising Baker for changing her life. “I’m so thankful to him. I don’t think he’ll understand how thankful I really am.”
Though The Florida Project is often heartbreaking, showing bleak glimpses of poverty and the extreme lengths that its characters go to survive, Baker hopes audiences find the innocent humor in it. “Children are funny,” he explains, adding, “Audiences will have fun spending time and being mischievous with Moonee and, at the same time, learning about a topic that I certainly didn’t know about and shed light on an important issue.”
Dafoe was impressed by the film’s total immersion into a hidden world, mixing what was really happening in these budget hotels with the fictional tale of Moonee. “We had enough actual places, people and things that rooted what we were doing to give us the confidence, give us the facts and the truth,” he says.
Making this film also afforded Baker another opportunity: working with his biggest movie star to date. He says it “was an honor like you wouldn’t believe” to work with Dafoe, a two-time Oscar nominee. “I remember sitting in a movie theater when I was in my teens, watching him in Platoon, [and] adoring him then. So to get this opportunity, it means everything in the world to work with somebody of that caliber.”
Dafoe, for his part, was aware that he was the “most recognizable name” to act in one of the director’s films, but found the experience of working with the likes of Prince and Vinaite to be humbling. “It sounds suspicious, but you do learn things from [untrained actors] and I aspire somewhere to be a beginner all the time,” Dafoe says.
“He was patient; he was kind,” Baker says of the longtime performer. “I was surrounding him with first-time actors and little kids, so he had to be very patient, but at the same time he wanted to fit in. He came down to the set a week early; he met with real hotel managers, understood the struggles, understood the environment [and] the politics and started to develop this character with me.”
And when an Oscar-nominated actor is in a film, the awards season buzz starts as soon as casting announced. That buzz is even louder when the filmmaker’s last project was an awards season dark horse contender. The noise and attention grows even more when the new film lives up to the hype, earning critical praise and adoration. Even so, everyone involved is overwhelmed by the thought of its success.
“You’re jinxing [it],” Baker declares, while Dafoe says, “It’s good news. This is a small movie. I think it’s a beautiful movie, and that kind of buzz helps people see it.”
“This is another dream come true, because I’ve been watching the Oscars for as long as I have lived and it has been my dream to be an actress and win an Oscar because that would mean so, so much to me,” Prince, now 7 years old, gushes. “I don’t care if I’m wearing mascara, I will cry. I will bawl my eyes out!”
The Florida Project is in select theaters Friday, Oct. 6.